Know Your Rights: Workplace Sexual Harassment


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Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Very generally, “sexual harassment” describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Title VII is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, and it applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments.

Even with Title VII’s protections, many people across the country still face sexual harassment in their workplaces. This page offers basic information about sexual harassment and guidelines for next steps if you believe you may be experiencing sexual harassment at work.

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Are there different types of sexual harassment claims?

Yes. Generally, there are two forms of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo: an employment decision — like a promotion, an assignment, or even keeping your job — is based on your submission to the sexual harassment

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes quid pro quo sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment or (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions.

  1. Hostile work environment: the sexual harassment makes your workplace environment intimidating, hostile, or offensive

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute hostile-environment sexual harassment when the conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an employee’s work performance or of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Courts consider several factors to determine whether an environment is hostile, including (1) whether the conduct was verbal, physical, or both; (2) how frequently it was repeated; (3) whether the conduct was hostile or patently offensive; (4) whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or supervisor; (5) whether others joined in perpetrating the harassment; and (6) whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual.

What kinds of behavior could be considered sexual harassment?

What constitutes sexual harassment can vary depending on the situation and people involved. It might include behaviors like unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, direct or indirect threats or bribes for sexual activity, sexual innuendos and comments, sexually suggestive jokes, unwelcome touching or brushing against a person, pervasive displays of materials with sexually illicit or graphic content, and attempted or completed sexual assault.

Does Title VII protect men from sexual harassment? What about same-sex harassment?

Anyone, male or female, can be a victim of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not limited by gender. The victim or the harasser may be a woman or a man, and her or his victim does not have to be of the opposite sex — a man might harass another man, and a woman might harass another woman.

Additionally, harassers are not always direct supervisors. Behavior may still constitute sexual harassment even if the harasser is a co-worker, a supervisor in another area, or even a person not employed in the victim’s workplace. In fact, a victim of sexual harassment does not necessarily have to be the person directly being harassed; the victim could be an employee who is indirectly but negatively affected by the offensive conduct.

Can one incident of harassment or offensive behavior constitute sexual harassment?

It depends. In quid pro quo cases, a single sexual advance may constitute harassment if it is linked to the granting or denial of employment or employment benefits. In contrast, unless the conduct is quite severe, a single incident or isolated incidents of offensive sexual conduct or remarks generally are not sufficient evidence of a hostile environment. A hostile-environment claim usually requires proof of a pattern of offensive conduct. Nevertheless, a single, unusually severe incident of harassment may be sufficient to constitute a Title VII violation; the more severe the harassment, the less need to show a repetitive series of incidents. This is particularly true when the harassment is physical.

Can my employer punish me because I complained about sexual harassment?

No. Title VII forbids employers from retaliating against you for filing a charge of harassment or speaking out against harassment. It also protects you from retaliation if you choose to participate in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing on behalf of a co-worker who you believe has had his or her rights violated under Title VII. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you think harassment has occurred in your workplace!

Are there other laws besides Title VII that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace?

Some states have adopted stronger protections against sexual harassment beyond Title VII. For more information, check out your state’s relevant laws or contact an employment lawyer in your state.

What should I do if I believe I am facing sexual harassment at work?

Remember that each situation is different, and you should take the steps that make sense in your case.

  1. Consult your employee handbook or policies. If your employer has a sexual harassment policy in place, follow it. Put complaints in writing. Take notes on the harassment and be specific in your details — note the time and place of each incident, what was said and done, and who witnessed the actions.
  1. If you feel safe speaking directly to the person harassing you, take these steps:
    1. Explain what behavior is bothering you. Name the behavior and be specific.
    2. Tell the harasser that their attention or behavior is bothering you.
    3. Ask the harasser to stop the behavior.
  1. Tell your supervisor about the behavior and the steps you have taken to address it. If you do not feel comfortable speaking directly to the person harassing you, go directly to your supervisor or human resources department.
  1. File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you believe you have a Title VII claim, you have the right to file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, the federal agency charged with enforcing many anti-discrimination laws. But don’t wait to file your complaint! In most cases you have 180 days — that’s six months — from the date of the discriminatory activity to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC in order to preserve your rights. You do not need an attorney to file a complaint with the EEOC. The EEOC’s website offers instructions on filing a charge.

What will the EEOC do after I file a complaint?

After you have filed a complaint, the EEOC will notify your employer that you have filed a charge and will begin an investigation into your complaint. The EEOC may then a take a number of different paths. First, the EEOC may attempt to settle your complaint or refer you and your employer to a mediator. Second, if the EEOC is unable to reach a settlement both parties agree on, and the defendant is a private employer, the EEOC may file a lawsuit in federal court. Finally, the EEOC may also choose to simply dismiss the charge. When a charge is dismissed, or if the EEOC is unable to reach an agreement to settle the complaint, the EEOC will issue a notice to you advising you of your right to sue in court. This notice is called a “right-to-sue” letter. If you want to file a lawsuit before the EEOC completes its process, you may request a right-to-sue letter.

I’m not sure yet if I want to file an EEOC charge or make a formal complaint to my employer. What steps can I take to protect myself?

  1. Keep a record of the discriminatory practices you believe are taking place.
  2. Check your company’s employee handbook. Your company may have an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer or another way for you to file an internal complaint. For instance, some companies offer mediation or other tools to resolve problems.
  3. Keep doing a good job and keep a record of your work. Keep copies at home of your job evaluations and any letters or memos that show that you do a good job at work.
  4. Seek support from friends and family. Harassment at work is a difficult thing to face alone, and the process of fighting harassment can be very stressful.
  5. You can contact the EEOC to speak with a counselor about your legal rights whether you choose to file a claim or not. The EEOC may investigate and/or offer mediation services to help resolve the complaint.
  6. Keep timing in mind. In most cases you have 180 days — six months — from the date of the discriminatory activity to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC in order to preserve your rights.

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